Michael Kleiner comes home to Norway
Writer returns with the third generation to be reunited with friends
The Norwegian American
Part 3: Flåm
Monday, July 1, 2019
We managed to get up and out the door. Angela couldn’t drive up to the platform, so we said our goodbyes and thanks outside Jernbanetorget.
We had splurged on leg-room seats. In 1996, Eivind said the first three hours of this trip were all trees. He revised that, “Two-and-a-half hours. The trains go faster now.”
Since I had been on this trip before, I didn’t take as many pictures. It was also rainy. This time I could write that the mountains, waterfalls, and fjords are still beautiful even in the rain. Lisa and I learned from our honeymoon that the number of waterfalls is endless.
In the past, there was a café on the train and occasionally a server would come down the aisles with a cart of food items and drinks. Now, there was just the café. In our Komfort section, we had access to free coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. Even the bathroom was cool. The door slid open like on spaceships, and the room was spacious.
You can take the train all the way to Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, on the west coast, about a seven-hour ride. This train was only going as far as Voss. We were going to Myrdal, five hours away. As the ride progresses, you are ascending in the mountains. Around Ustaoset, the scenery starts getting better.
Snow appears on some of the mountains. Maybe I was reading more into it, but the snow looked thinner than I remember seeing back in July 1992. That was 27 years ago, but global warming?
Finse is the highest point in the trip, 4,009 feet above sea level. It has one of the more interesting stations. A train car above ground level connects one high story of a building to the other. The building is made of wood and stone.
Then, the train starts to descend. At Myrdal, the passengers pour out to change to the green train to Flåm and the passengers from Flåm to change to the Myrdal to Bergen or Myrdal to Oslo trains. It was raining and under 50° Farenheit. Luggage was strewn about the platform. Everybody gathered in the lobby of the station. A man stood on a bench and asked everyone to gather around. We left our luggage outside. It would be loaded for us.
The Flåm train—Flåmsbana—is just under an hour ride. At Myrdal, we were now 2,841 feet above sea level and the 12-and-a-half-mile ride would descend to Flåm, which is just 6.6 feet above sea level—it’s a wharf. The train is on four levels of track down through the mountains. There are 20 tunnels, 18 of which were made by hand, and no bridges. It took 20 years to build, and was completed in 1940, at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Norway. Then, the resistance had to sabotage the line to prevent the Nazis from using it. Initially, Flåmsbana was built to connect the villages and it still does. National Geographic Traveler called it one of the top 10 train rides in Europe, Lonely Planet the most beautiful in the world.
Look out for the huldra, a woman in a red dress, who according to Norse mythology is a forest spirit who tries to entice men into the mountains. To haunting folk music, she appears in the distance and begins to dance. Coincidentally, she appears whenever the train arrives.
Matthew and Jack thought it was staged. Smart teenagers.
The train passes the old center of Flåm and a church built in 1667. The train comes out of the mountain and into the current center of town, a couple of parallel blocks bordered by the water. I had been unable to get accommodations in the hotels nearby, and we were in the Brekke Gard Hostel. There was a taxi stand, but no taxi. The woman in the tourist center said it was easy to get to, under a mile. Direct it was, but with the luggage, cumbersome.
As we made the turn to take us to the reception area, we met some of the other baarders. Baa! Sheep. I had gotten a discount through booking.com but had to pay extra for the towels. We had to trudge up a road to the main building. We were surrounded by mountains and a waterfall. We entered through the back into a kitchen. To the side was a large sitting room. After two more flights was a slanted ladder to the loft. Another sitting room was outside our room. We were in a long room with “dorm beds,” with two other men, who never said a word to us, nor us to them.
Brekke is one of the affordable vacation options in Norway. If desired, you can buy food at the market and prepare it in the kitchen and save money going out. You can relax in the sitting rooms and meet other guests. But it might not be good for all international travelers, especially with luggage, or if you don’t want to share a room with strangers. But it was clean. It cost $340 for the four of us for two nights plus the towels. In the last weeks, two rooms opened at the Fretheim Hotel and for the two nights, it was $2,000.
At reception, we asked for a number for the cab, but no one answered when we called, so we walked. It wasn’t too bad without the luggage.
For dinner, we ended up at Flåmsbrygga Hotel’s Ægir Brew Pub, which opened in 2007. It had a Norse traditional brown wood look with dragon heads coming out from the roof. In the lobby were wood tables, strange-looking chairs. In the center were barrels surrounding a seating area and wood sculptures. There were also fur rugs around an open fire and a chimney extending through both stories of the building. Driftwood walls, more dragon heads. Antlers were the handles of the taps at the bar. In the back of the bar was an enclosed brewery where they made their beer.
According to the restaurant website, “Ægir was the master of the ocean, and according to Odin, brewed the best beer…. Our philosophy is Ægir beer in and with the food.” The beers have won numerous international competitions, and Ægir is now making their own aquavit.
One of the servers had long blond hair. I don’t know if that was supposed to be part of the Norse atmosphere or not.
Up a winding staircase is the main dining room, offering a five-course dinner with different beer choices, the Ægir Viking Plank, which was also available without beer for children and with vegetarian and food allergy accommodations. None of us were going to be drinking. Each menu item included a short historical story. Food was satisfactory, good grades on atmosphere.
We still had time to kill before the minibus to Stegastein Viewpoint overlooking Aurlandsfjorden. Also new since 1996 was Mall of Norway, a large store with many different Norway-branded souvenirs, including Norwegian sweaters.
The bus finally arrived. The driver handed out audio players with the recorded tour on them, earphones, and a placard. You were supposed to scan the placard with the player for your language and then each point in the trip. They didn’t all work for everybody, notably our family. But I eventually got one that worked.
The population of Flåm is about 400, but 10,000 tourists a day come through. The roads in the mountain were narrow. It was chilly and windy at Stegastein. There was a long walkway from where you can see different views of the fjord. Despite being overcast, it was still light and the views stupendous.
The Flåm website had mentioned that the toilet at Stegastein had been named
“The Most Beautiful Toilet” in 2015 from Design Curial Magazine. I saw the bus driver coming out. He knew nothing about the award.
On the way down, the driver dropped us and two Australian women at Brekke. It was nice after the long day we had.
Tuesday, July 2, 2019
I noticed Jack had a journal with a drawn Norwegian flag on each day. He said he was writing bullet points about what we did.
We could eat the smørgåsbord/buffet breakfast at Fretheim for NOK 150 each (around $18-$19). Matthew and Jack could experience a Norwegian breakfast: powdered eggs, sausages, potatoes, hot and cold cereal, cold cuts, cheeses, and herring in three different sauces. Lisa didn’t think it was as good as the one in Geiranger.
With time to kill before our ferry around Aurlandsfjorden and Nærøyfjord to Gudvangen, we stopped in the souvenir store in the small Flåmsbana history museum and Coop market.
Aurlandsfjorden and Nærøyfjord are the narrowest fjords in Norway. We were on Visions of the Fjord, “the world’s first electric hybrid vessel built from carbon fiber,” navigating smoothly and quietly in the off-and-on rainy weather. Nærøyfjord is also a UNESCO environmentally protected world heritage site.
After a quick lunch at Gudvangen Fjordtell, we browsed the souvenirs in its gift shop. Jack was asking for help with Norwegian on products. “You know the ultimate Norwegian souvenir is a sweater,” I said. “They’re expensive but the editor at The Norwegian American said there are good deals at Mall of Norway.”
We then went to Viking Valley (www.norwegianamerican.com/gudvangen-viking-valley-njardarheimr). For dinner we ended up at one of Flåmsbrygga Hotel’s companion eateries, Furukroa Café, which was a snack bar/cafeteria, where we also got ice cream.
At Mall of Norway, we looked at the Dale of Norway sweaters. Many were light and expensive (almost $300 or more). Jack ended up with a white and gray cardigan with clips for $175, in addition to a shoulder bag with Norway on it, a Norwegian Swiss army knife, among other items. Matthew didn’t want to spend that much but wanted a Norway-branded item. Now I knew they were enjoying the trip. Lisa bought a fleece jacket with a Norwegian flag on the chest and back collar. I had yet to buy any souvenir for myself.
Wednesday, July 3, 2019
Packed up, we made the descent down the ladder steps, then the other steps, outside, said goodbye to the sheep, and began the trek to town. As we got closer to town, I saw the taxi drive by! Breakfast was at the Flåm Bakeri with its huge croissants and Danish pastries. We were able to store our luggage for a fee in a little building by the train. Then, we went off to do some more souvenir looking.
“I especially liked Flåm,” said Matthew. “The mountains were cool. I was surprised by a lot of tourists, considering the population in the small town. The boat was freezing cold. Viking Valley was interesting. I didn’t think there were still people living like the Vikings.”
“I really liked Flåm,” said Jack. “I thought Flåm was the most beautiful. I liked being in a very tiny town for a few days. It was sort of escapism, very relaxing.”
The train arrived in Oslo around 7:20 p.m. so we decided to eat dinner before heading back to Eivind and Angela’s. We ended up at Burger King. You ordered on a screen and the menu was in Norwegian with pictures. Matthew figured a green button in any language means “go,” or “yes.” He was right. You get your slip and another screen over the counter indicates if your order is ready. Suddenly, our number appeared. I went to the counter and showed our number. The kid looked in the bags for the order.
The cab stand was not right outside the station, but a couple of turns and streets away. The driver got lost with the construction in the neighborhood, but we were able to help. It cost $48.59.
This article originally appeared in the February 21, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.